SANTA CLARA -- Nearly eight years after the San Francisco 49ers announced plans to move to Silicon Valley, the team finally has a new field to call home.
A special new breed of turf that's been growing in the Central Valley for the past 18 months reached Levi's Stadium on a convoy of flatbed trucks before dawn Thursday. By late morning the north end zone where Colin Kaepernick figures to throw his touchdown passes next year had been covered with lush sod that coach Jim Harbaugh had compared to the fairways at the Masters.
Crews should finish laying down the full $1.4 million playing field, which began with an installation of a drainage system in December, by the end of the weekend. That will leave plenty of time before the first games in August for the 2.5 acres to reach the height of a baseball infield, for a shorter playing surface than at Candlestick Park. That should allow players to move faster.
The turf installation represents the final -- and perhaps most palpable -- major milestone in the construction of the $1.3 billion Santa Clara stadium, which broke ground two years ago this Saturday and is just about completed.
"It's like the finishing touch that ties it all together," said Greg Dunn, the Northern California sales manager from the West Coast Turf farm in Livingston where the Levi's Stadium sod was grown.
In a multi-billion dollar sport where the speed of a running back's cuts and injuries from hard falls can determine games, the 49ers are looking for every edge they can muster, however small it may seem. They're ditching the old type of Bermuda turf that they've used since the 1990s -- a staple at NFL stadiums -- and switching to a new brand known as Bandera Bermuda, a strain billed as so resistant even 300-pound lineman can't trample it to bits.
"You grab this grass and try to tear it -- it's tough stuff. It doesn't pull apart," Dunn said. "Divots should be almost nonexistent in this stadium."
Because the grass can be kept about three-quarters of an inch high, the surface should be lower and faster than at colder-weather stadiums and Candlestick, while still providing enough give for player safety, Dunn said. It also will allow it to drain faster to avoid muddy conditions and will need less water for upkeep -- a plus in a state enduring a drought.
The Bandera is used at the San Diego Padres' Petco Park, Sacramento's minor-league baseball stadium, a Stanford football practice field and in the end zones of the Oakland Raiders' O.Co Coliseum, the one part that doesn't overlap with the baseball diamond. The Raiders loved it so much that when the A's season ended last year and the Raiders had the entire field to themselves, they re-sodded the rest of the playing surface with Bandera just for their final handful of games.
Niners' head groundskeeper Matt Greiner said he had been watching the sod for a couple years and was impressed with how it stayed green late into the winter, requiring less rye grass "seasoning" on top that's usually needed to yield the sharp, dark green color.
"Most importantly, the Bandera Bermuda has good tensile strength so when a player plants his cleat, it holds together better," Greiner told the team's Website earlier this week.
Despite the hoopla locally, it's not yet widely known nationally. Kevin Morris, executive director of the prestigious National Turfgrass Evaluation Program, said he had never heard of Bandera. And because it's specially grown, even the hardiest of Silicon Valley suburbanites looking for a perfectly manicured lawn can't expect to pick it up at their local Orchard Supply Hardware.
The 49ers declined comment or to provide access to the turf until a media event Monday after the installation is complete.
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.
49ers new turf, by the numbers
Total size of turf, including sidelines and back of end zones: 106,325 square feet
Size of playing surface: 68,000 square feet
Size of each roll of turf shipped to the stadium: 42 inches wide by 115 feet long, weighing 1,400 pounds
Trucks required to ship the turf to the stadium: 12
Height of grass: quarter-inch now; will grow to three-fourths of an inch
Installation: requires 10 workers two days to lay down the field
Source: 49ers, West Coast Turf